Thursday, March 08, 2007

ARTICLE: The Importance of Feedback!

[Article for Cartoons Dammit! Christmas Day 2006]

(Merry Christmas and Happy Whatever folks! For a change of pace, this week's blog is brought to you by James McLean, artist of 'Stripped Bare" the Drawing Board's head elf. Take it away James!)

What ho chaps and chapalinas!

I’ve come promptly to stand in this spot, just behind your shoulder (the slightly less attractive one you possess on your left side) and whisper oh so moistly, some sage advice into your left ear. You may want to take heed of these words, you may not. Either way, they are hereby delivered forthwith.

Audiences - generally speaking, artists share a reciprocated love/hate relationship with the merry band of art hungry wilder beasts. It is a symbiotic relationship - in other words, we feed of each other with equal need; we need an audience, they need stimulation. Keeping this symbiosis in a decent status quo is a difficult one, for unfortunately, these wilder beasts have freedom of thought - and opinion. Some will even throw this first amendment right straight at you. Sometimes it can be words shaped from the fluffy feelings of adoration. Sometimes what's thrown can be downright fecal.

Question is, how should we take criticism?

This is a tough question. As artists we are vulnerable creatures, be we writers, pencillers, animators or twig arrangers. We respond to criticism sensitively. We are so close to our projects we suffer a weakness in our own objectivity. We need feedback, but we need to treat feedback with caution. It can break an artist's spirit and self belief. It can thereby hinder future work or even put him off his chosen hobby/vocation.

So we need to be constructive of our feedback.

Take the adult TV cartoon Family Guy - with it's surreal and often controversial take on pop-culture, is it going to appeal to all? Certainly not. I imagine many long term fans of "I Love Lucy" may balk at an episode. I certainly recall my grandmother watching one episode of Family Guy and despite the fact I'd be laughing throughout, she genuinely queried if this was a "comedy".

So if we imagine the feedback to a show like Family Guy, how diverse could such comments be? How does creator Seth Macfarlane deal with the negative feedback? While some remarks are probably outright nasty, you can bet that some of the comments against Seth's team would be constructive criticism as to why Family Guy fails to work because - for some people - it genuinely does fail to work - it doesn't make them laugh.

But does that mean it's broken? Does it need to be fixed to make such people laugh? Would we just be causing a similar rebuke from another audience if we did?

Bottomline: we can't please everyone.

As artists, we're trying to create a product (not necessarily for profit), that appeals to a certain group; a certain mindset. To do that, we need to understand what sort of audience we are looking to attain. Once we know our projects audience - be it those who like Family Guy or those who like I Love Lucy, we then need to build our projects to be as professionally tied into this "herd" as we can.

To know how successful we are, feedback is important. We can't be both supplier and customer. We need help in ascertaining how good our product is. We need feedback! You have to listen to the remarks, but you must learn to discern what is useful and constructive to your craft and what is unnecessarily destructive.

Here are some pointers based on experience I've had as a writer and illustrator as well as Manager of the Cartoons Dammit!'s Drawing Board.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for feedback, but don't immediately presume all feedback is relevant. Not everyone will like or agree with your work, and you can't change that, nor should you therefore try and act on all advice. Pick what's relevant to your project and audience. Try looking at how often comments come up - does the same advice get repeated? Might be worth taking note - particularly if it seems like it's coming from people who "get" what you are doing.
  • Be honest with yourself. Are you trying to find excuses as not to agree with some of the more negative feedback? Are you simply trying to avoid facing a problem?
  • Watch out for those who are mixing up personal feelings about you as an artist with your work. Happens a lot!
  • Embrace all constructive feedback rather than take it personally. See how you can take a negative and turn it into a positive!
  • Don't ignore the advice of professionals, but don't be afraid to contextualize it with your intentions. Professionals are human too. Don't readily accept all advice as being gospel.
  • Use your common sense, gut and experience to discern what comments are worthy of influencing your work in the future and which are best to ignore. Some comments won't be as relevant to your art and intended demograph.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes. Professionals make mistakes. You will make mistakes. Some will be ones only you'll be aware of, some won't be apparent until someone points them out. We're human - not machines, don't let the occasional error ruin you - learn from it. To paraphrase one famous saying: "Those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them." May I also include a nugget of my own wisdom: "Those who fear making errors are being stupid heads - they end up producing bugger all."
  • Be polite when responding to feedback. You NEED honest feedback. Some ego slaps are great (and as I will explain later conducive to an artist), but you need objective opinion. You can't get that if people thing you are going to have drama at the nearest sign of commentary that doesn't praise your project
Finally. Ego. Ego. Ego. Bask in your positive feedback. Enjoy it. It's good to have an ego. Hell, you'll need an ego as an artist. We are in the business of opening our souls, expressing our creativity. Take heart when someone loves it. Even one person. If you've enriched someone's day for twenty minutes that's a wonderful thing.

It takes more guts to be an artist that to comment on it. The fact you are not ashamed or afraid to express yourself is a worthy talent in it's own. Never forget that.

Furthermore, ego is needed to get out best work out there - we have to believe in ourselves. Sometimes people will warn you your idea is "stupid" (had that a few times) but the end result is actually something to the contrary! If you had listened to the advise before you actioned your plan, you'd never have turned out that splice of brilliance! Sometimes you have to go with your gut. However, as with all risks, be prepared for the chance that what people predicted may come true. Our ego's allow us to take risks where others wouldn't and that can mean we create some brilliant stuff! But there will be times when we fall flat on our arty faces. I doubt there is a professional alive who hasn't done so. That's life - but that's also the adventure!

We need ego! Given we can never please everyone who views our work, it is vital there is one voice louder than the rest: our own. Listen to it, but don't let it delude you!

Got all that? Now go do some art, big-head!

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